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ScrumMaster, Get off Your High Horse

30 September 2013

Raghu Angara, CSP, CSM, MBA
Infosys Technologies

Contrary to popular belief, ScrumMasters don't have it easy. Facilitation is not as simple as it is made out to be, especially when members of the team are either novices and/or haughty. Additionally, there are many proverbial "headless chickens" running around making noise. ScrumMasters face an uphill task in mentoring and guiding prospective Agilists to follow Scrum rules and best practices.

More often than not, the snide remarks come from people who are the least knowledgeable about Agile principles, discipline, methods, practices, roles, and responsibilities. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of such people or groups in the corporate world. When ScrumMasters attempt to explain the concept of Agile and self-organized teams (and in the process also explain the role of management in an Agile environment), they are faced with comments such as, "ScrumMaster, get off your high horse." It is in this context that I write this article.

I had the interesting experience of joining a project as ScrumMaster. On the very first day I discovered, to my dismay, that I was the only member of the team at the time. I was tasked with forming a team of Agile experts when there were none available. The organization I worked for had very little Agile history. Needless to say, it took me more than a month to get people with some exposure to Agile principles and practices. Coaching the team was not the difficult part; the team was enthusiastic and eager to start practicing Agile. The challenge was more from middle management -- line managers, project managers, and program managers. No one had any clue about what Agile truly was, and even less knowledge about roles and responsibilities. The team was expected to deliver from Day One, without giving the members a chance to go through the team-forming life cycle.

The ScrumMaster's role is extremely challenging until such time as the team becomes self-organized and all the stakeholders reach the same level of understanding of Agile best practices, roles, and responsibilities. The situational leadership role ScrumMasters find themselves in demands that they remain steadfast and help eliminate any noise that could potentially distract the team from performing at its best toward the sprint goal. While this may seem like an easy effort, the truth is quite to the contrary. To become a barrier between the Scrum team and any distracting influence from the management, marketing, and other nonessential stakeholders is a full-time responsibility for the ScrumMaster. It is, most of the time, difficult and laden with organizational politics. Ensuring that the Scrum process is used as intended is one challenge. Other challenges include educating/coaching and mentoring stakeholders on the concepts of Agile/Scrum; enforcing the rules of Scrum; timeboxing daily stand-up meetings into 10 to 15 minutes; steering discussions toward increased productivity; mediating through conflicts; facilitating meetings such as sprint planning, retrospectives, and reviews; keeping the team motivated; and helping team and the stakeholders maintain transparency. These are just a few of the challenges faced by all ScrumMasters.

A major impediment to the ScrumMaster role that I have seen and experienced is the expectation that ScrumMaster also perform as a project manager. This is a perfect recipe for disaster. In my opinion, the mind-sets of these two roles are totally different and so will result in project failure. Another expectation that is common in global consulting organizations is that ScrumMasters also perform marketing duties and explore business opportunities for growth. This leads to severe problems and often ends up with disbanded teams. Additionally, it could cost organizations future business with their clients.

ScrumMasters are required to be resistant to all such ridiculous expectations, remain persistent in ensuring that the rules of Scrum are followed, and be dedicated in their efforts to remove impediments to the ability of the team to deliver the sprint goal. ScrumMasters must make sure that all stakeholders have an awareness of the rules. Only then can there be improvement. Bringing awareness of Agile and Scrum to management, marketing, and other stakeholders is a tough task for any ScrumMaster.

So, does the ScrumMaster need to get off his or her high horse?

Not if organizations wish to be successful in their pursuit of Agile excellence.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.7 (7 ratings)


Zach Bonaker, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 9/30/2013 10:11:11 AM
Nice article and you hit squarely on the major pain points. This reads a lot like my daily life... trying to coach teams through the Scrum framework, but in an environment where there is no support to do so. We need an article contribution on how ScrumMasters can stay motivated, too!
Briana Hall, CSM, 9/30/2013 3:47:35 PM
>We need an article contribution on how ScrumMasters can stay motivated, too

Hear, hear!

There's only so much beating your head up against a wall you can do before you begin to get demoralized, which makes it impossible to support your team appropriately.
Kumar Venugopal, CSM,CSPO, 10/1/2013 11:41:06 PM
Nicely stated. The challenge for SM becomes more to highlight the differences in roles and responsibilities with PM especially for projects transitioned agile way.
Practices,principles of agile within the organization need to have a strong commitment and message from senior leadership teams to be successful.
Ganesh Doddi, CSM,CSPO, 10/9/2013 9:05:24 PM
The article clearly highlights the importance on the support by Upper and Middle management. Looking from management perspective, ideally they do not want to be stumbling blocks for successful projects, after all they would like to lead/own successful projects. What might be lacking is the knowledge on essentials of scrum and how to transform from existing waterfall to scrum.

To address this important objective, I think Scrum Alliance should consider separate courses for Upper and Middle management on key processes of Scrum, it's benefits and key inputs during transition.

These courses should be suggested by the Scrum community to all organisations before deciding to implement Scrum in their organisations.

This improvement fits into Scrum's inspect/adapt practice where we 'inspect' current issue of management lack of knowledge and adapt by coming up with required course for them.
Bharath Malaivaiyavur, CSM, 10/31/2014 4:43:39 AM
Excellent article and I could relate to every line and phrase in it. Seems like Scrum Masters are having to deal with organization politics day in and day out. Also, it's an unsustainable practice to have the Scrum Master from the vendor organization when the management is from the client organization leading to the intensification of the turmoil and politicization of Scrum activities.
Mark Alcantara, CSP,CSM, 3/31/2015 4:34:01 PM
Great article, certainly resonates with me. Motivation as a scrum master can wane when working with difficult team members and little support. Best I can manage this is to look within for positivity, awareness and reflection to grow stronger.

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